Filmmaker Milt Lee cannot stomach Hollywood’s compulsion to relegate Native Americans to one of two places - a pedestal of historic glorification that makes them all spiritual leaders, healers, etc. or as the poster child of the third world in America. He tackles this perception head-on in his latest documentary Video Letters from Prison, to be released this Spring.
With more than 30 years of the documentary business to his credit, Lee has told the stories of Indian Country with a goal of showing his audience the real-life stories of Native Americans. He launched a site called realrez.com and has produced a number of documentaries about his people to make Native Americans more present-day and tangible.
“I was tired of seeing this,” he said. “People wanted to have their programs documented in Indian Country so I was able to do that and I just kept doing it for all kinds of folks: The Lakota fund, the United States Forest Service. Then I started doing it for other tribes around the country.”
A Native South Dakotan himself, he began a project in 2004 on the Pine Ridge Reservation which would reunite prisoners with their children. Initially, he wanted to do this work via the web but then learned that inmates do not have Internet access. The idea of taking video messages recorded by children to their parents and vice versa came to him.
“I wanted to show people what this process was,” he said.
Enter Cindy Wheeler. She was the mother of three girls who had not seen their father in 10 years. The video letters project would be funneled through her department in Pine Ridge. She was naturally very skeptical at first, Lee said. He allayed her concerns by explaining to her what he believed to be the value of the project.
“The life force of a person comes through their mom or their dad. If you’re cut off from either one of them or both, as a person it’s really hard for you to be fully present in your life,” he said. “It’s hard to thrive to be, how shall I say that, to be a complete human.”
Wheeler agreed to test the project with her own children before taking it on fully.
So the girls, all teenagers at the time, had the same response about their father, Marvin Poor Bear: “They were all pretty like ‘I don’t have anything to say to him.’ And ‘I don’t really need a dad’ and ‘it doesn’t really matter anymore, I’ve sort of lost interest in my dad.’”
But underneath the girls’ initial hard reaction Lee saw something else.
“You could see they were angry. They were hurt. They weren’t happy. I don’t know how else to say it,” he said.
The Poor Bear girls were given free range to say anything they wanted to their father. They started out talking about how they didn’t remember him because he did not keep in touch. Lee found that by letting them explore their feelings and showing that he cared about what they had to say, they grew more and more comfortable in front of the camera.
After a while it was time to take the video letters to the girls’ father who was in the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, on the opposite side of the state. Lee showcases the development of a relationship on camera which culminates into a connection that still exists today.
He hopes the project will continue but the unwillingness of prison wardens around the state have hindered those efforts, despite the research linking family contact to a decline in repeat criminal offense.
Lee is currently working a project called “Neurogenocide” about how the school systems nationwide teach in styles that actually kill neurons and hinder learning.
Written by Nancy Kelsey.